Sunday, January 10, 2010

TED Lectures

If you love food and haven't discovered the TED lectures, here's a nice digest of the ones on food topics:

Friday, January 08, 2010

Corn Broth & Vegetable Medleys

Back during the summer, I was interviewing Mike Lata of FIG for a Charleston City Paper article on local restaurant trends, and he talked about this fish and shrimp succotash thing that had become a regular on the menu.  The base of the succotash was something I'd never tried using before: corn broth.  But, the triggerfish with shrimp succotash was so knock-your-socks-off good, I had to start experimenting with corn broth.  It wasn't long before I was boiling up a dozen corn cobs at a time and freezing it for future use.

I was further inspired by John Ondo down at Lana, whose roasted chicken served over a bed of sauteed vegetables led me to a brief period where just about everything I cooked at home ended up being layered atop a medley of five or more veggies.  The Wife, whose vegetable intake in any given month may consist solely of onion rings and the pickle from a cheeseburger, has accused me of trying to sneak a full bushel of vegetables into her diet--but even she isn't complaining, because it's so darn good.

The corn broth is simple to make: you simply carve the kernels off of anywhere from 2 to 12 ears of corn, reserving the kernels for cooking or freezing.  Put the corn cobs in a pot with a bunch of water--at least enough to cover the cobs--bring it to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.  Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes, then strain and put into storage containers for freezing.  Like chicken stock and duck fat, corn broth is a staple you should always have on hand in the freezer.

I need to come up with a snappier name than "vegetable medley", which sounds like something off the middle school lunchroom menu, but that's what it is.  The great thing about my corn broth preparation is that you can use it with just about any vegetables--whatever you see fresh at the store.   Usual suspects for mine: onions, zucchini, yellow squash, green beans, corn (of course), shallots, and limas.  One of my particular favorites are previously-cooked blackeyed peas, which I goose up with onions and Benton's bacon and simmer for 45 minutes in chicken stock and white wine.  I always make these in bulk, so there's usually a big tub of them in the freezer and I can thaw out a half cup or so to use in the medley, being sure to include several good chunks of bacon to add to the flavor.

The key is to precook anything that required more than a few minutes to cook.  So, for example, I would blanche the green beans and use pre-cooked corn and blackeyed peas and get them ready ahead of time.

One of the many good things about this preparation is that it doesn't take very long to finish off once you get started.  I'm usually serving something like pan-seared fish (flounder and trigger are good candidates) or roasted chicken over the veggies, so you can get the meat all ready and in its finishing state in the oven and kick off the final veggie prep.

For that, I melt a tablespoon (or two) of butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and add in, say, the onions.  Once they are starting to get translucent, I throw in the tender stuff like squash and zucchini and give it a couple of minutes of sauteeing.  Then, all the pre-cooked stuff, tossing it around for a minute or two until it's good and heated up.  Then, pour over it all a splash of white wine, let it bubble away for a few seconds, then pour in a cup or so of corn broth.   The pan is good and hot at this point, so the broth bubbles up pretty quickly and starts to boil, but you're not trying to create a reduction sauce here.  I let it bubble for a minute or so, so that it starts to reduce just a bit but is still definitely thin and brothy, then pour they veggie mix (broth and all) into a wide, shallow bowl and lay over the top the night's fish or meat selection.

The secret to it all is the corn broth. It has a rich, delicate flavor that really lights up the vegetables and lays a perfect foundation for a fish or poultry dish.

This is one that now has a permanent place in my kitchen rotation.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Winter Dining Downtown

The country makes me nervous. There's ... You got crickets and it-it's quiet ... there's no place to walk after dinner." -- Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), Annie Hall

I've had several dinners out downtown in recent weeks, and now that the weather has finally turned cold (and by cold, for Charleston that means the mercury dipping down into the 30s), I'm finding I'm enjoying dinners out even more than I usually do. Having on-premise parking is usually seen as a big plus for a restaurant, but lately I've noticed how much I enjoy that element of dining that you only get in a downtown setting: the walk to and from dinner.

There's just something wonderful about walking a few blocks to a restaurant when it's just gotten dark, and it's chilly enough outside to bite at your ears and make your toes a little cold, and the streets are just starting to pick up with the nighttime traffic.

You pick up the pace as you get within a block or two of your destination, because the wind's picking up and sneaking inside your collar, and your cheeks are starting to tingle a little. You get to the restaurant, pull open the big glass door, and step inside to a transformed world. It's a warm, well-lit room busting with people. They're laughing and enjoying themselves, swapping stories and telling jokes. And, more than anything else, there's that all-encompassing, splendid aroma of good food: roasted meats and seared fish and fresh-baked bread. It's one of the best smells in the world.

And, after dinner, that bracing four block or five block walk back to the car is delightful, too. It helps take the edge off the meal you just ate and the wine you just drank. You wouldn't want to hike several miles in the frigid night, but four or five blocks is just right. It leaves you, at the end of the night, happy and satisfied, with that peaceful sense that, for this evening at least, all is right with thw world.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

On Trends (or, Lessons from Lot's Wife)

My favorite quote from food-trends-of-the-decade retrospectives, by David Chang via Christopher Borrelli the Chicago Tribune:

Bad trends were usually good trends. They just got watered down into a really bad, overdone trend.
I would have to disagree with the Trib's rankings on some of the purported worst trends of the decade, though.  "Deconstructing" a dish's elements, while annoying and self-indulgent, can hardly be the #1 worst food thing that happened in the past decade.  You can at least put the dish back together again.

I mean, what about stuffed crust pizza? the term "locavore"? high fructose corn syrup? people taking the "eat local challenge" and somehow deciding it's okay to make a special exception for coffee grown overseas as long as it's purchased from a locally-owned coffee house?  hundreds of out of work construction workers taking out big loans to open their own short-lived barbecue joints?  Go-Gurt?

Maybe looking back isn't such a good idea . . .

Saturday, January 02, 2010

2008 (yes, '08) Food Predictions: A Retrospective

So, now everyone's looking back on 2009 and making their predictions for 2010.  I was very lazy in 2009 and didn't make any predictions about what the year in food would look like.  I did, however, make a bunch of predictions for 2008 two New Years ago (and maybe I did procrastinate a little and didn't get them posted until well into February).  About this time last year, I started a "how did I do" post to revisit and score them, and it's sat in my "Drafts" folder ever since.  Clearly my 2010 New Year's resolutions should include something about finishing what I start . . .  but I'll get to that later.

After all, it's really better to give yourself two years to look at predictions, because sometimes it takes more than twelve months for nascent trends to gel.  And, when your "what's hot" sensors are a finely-tuned as mine, it's quite easy to see things coming a full eighteen months before anyone else notices them.  Really.

So, how did I do with my 2008 forecast?  Let's run them down one-by-one.


You'll see more chefs planting their own gardens, carving up whole pigs, and making pates, rillets, and terrines.


As I pointed out in the original prediction, this one was pretty much a layup.  But, despite the ease with which "farm-to-table" drops from their lips, not that many chefs have dived in neck deep in this.  I was surprised to find a charcuterie plate on the menu at Neil Jordan's Steakhouse, which opened in the fall of 2008 way up Highway 17 at the top of Mount Pleasant. That's got to be the farthest from East Bay and Market Street that the word has been uttered (It's farther up to Neil Jordan's than out to the Fat Hen on John's Island--I checked on Google Maps!). A lot of places may have an herb garden or tomato vine, and 2009 newcomers Vespa Pizzeria on Daniel Island (Jon Banta's place) and 17 North in Mount Pleasant (the new comfort food outpost by Brett McKee of Oak fame) both have their own garden plots where they grow (or will grow, once things warm up) fresh produce for their kitchens.  Sean Brock at McCrady's, with his John's Island farm, remains the only chef I'm aware of growing vegetables on a really large scale. I guess that on the one hand fresh produce is really tasty but, on the other hand, farming is really hard. 7 points.


I predict you'll see similar changes [using fresh, local and/or heirloom ingredients] in the mid-market chain restaurants, in a dumbed down form. O'Charley's and T.G.I. Friday's will update their menu verbiage to proclaim stuff like "Double-Cut Smithfield Farms American Yorkshire Pork Chop" and start adding a few slices of heirloom tomatoes or Niman Ranch bacon into their chef salads.


Some of the fast-casual chains--like Bennigans and Steak-and-Ale--surprised me altogether not by going local but by going belly up. Of those that are still around, T.G.I. Fridays (which didn't, as far as I am aware, win an award for Most Obnoxious Website Ever but certainly should have) did NOT introduce any heirloom or boutique ingredients to their ridiculously complicated menu, and neither did O'Charley's. O'well.

In my defense, it's important to note that even though T.G.I. Friday's did not adopt my heirloom-ingredient strategy, they certainly should have. Their financials have been flagging for the past two years, according to Research & Markets, because "they lack sufficient differentiation to attract higher-end clientele against a backdrop of increasing niche competition." Rival outlet Applebee's is faring pretty poorly, too. It was acquired by the IHOP folks, who promised to turn things around by remodeling the buildings and sprucing up the menu. As best as I can tell, that means just little tweaks like adding a "quesadilla burger" and panko-breaded calamari.

Of all the mid-market chains, Ruby Tuesday has come closest to my prediction (which, really, when you think about it, is less a prediction than free good advice for struggling restaurant corporations).  Founder and CEO Sandy Beall has made a determined effort over the past few years to overhaul the restaurant chain's image, resulting in, as the corporate website proclaims, "No more walls as attic clean-out, not a stained-glass lamp in sight, just fresh, great-tasting food expertly prepared with the highest-quality ingredients."  The menu now boasts jumbo lump crab cakes, broiled tilapi, and a bunch of lobster dishes.  Alas, same store sales are down 8% over last year.

Not aggressive enough, folks: only Berkshire pork and artisanal cheese can save you now. 1 sympathy point.


The high-end boys will have to take it up a notch . . . Sean Brock at McCrady's will establish a machine shop where he will assemble vacuum cookers, foam extruders, and other singular kitchen devices of his own design . . . at High Cotton, Anthony Gray . . . will build an on-premise abattoir where he will slaughter cattle . . . Mike Lata will go in a different direction, providing patrons at FIG with hand-woven baskets and handwritten guides to all the secret spots on the Peninsula where they can forage for their own nuts, berries, and edible weeds, which he will prepare for them back at the restaurant in awe-inspiring combinations


Okay, so Sean Brock did not set up the machine shop, and as far as I am aware no one is slaughtering animals on the Peninsula (yet).  A bunch of restaurants started buying full sides of beef from grass-fed cows slaughtered right out on Wadmalaw Island.  And, Brock did venture out into raising pigs and totally remodeled the McCrady's kitchen, which is enough of an extension of his existing repertoire to qualify as "taking it up a notch."  But, most notable of all, Mike Lata was . . . drumroll . . . the guest chef at a FORAGING trip down the May River at Bluffton's Inn at Palmetto Bluff!!!  Man, did I call that one.  8 points.


Just as the low-fat diet craze was supplanted by the low-carb diet craze . . . I am officially projecting that the next new health craze will be the low-protein diet. All the sugar and pork fat you can eat, but stay away from lean beef, chicken breasts, and skim milk!


Okay, so I totally blew that one. Turns out there is a low-protein diet out there, but it's really designed for folks with liver disease, kidney failure, or "toxic bowel" (yikes!), not folks who need to lose a pound or ten. But that doesn't mean its time won't come around for the general public, despite the attendant danger of "muscle wasting"--or perhaps because of that: what better way to achieve that gaunt Hollywood look that's so in vogue? I'm leaving it on the list for 2010, but it gets 0 points for this tally.


The next big thing . . . will be the return of grande cuisine. Restaurants will ditch their mismatched chairs and rustic farmhouse decor and buy a truckload of fine old Chippendale furniture and velvet curtains, then triple their waitstaff and put them back in coats with tails. Meals will last six hours with a no fewer than fourteen courses. The hot menu items will be Beef Wellington and Steak Diane and Duck a'la Orange, with a dessert of Baked Alaska followed by brandy and cigars.


Okay, that one's out in left field.  But wouldn't it be really cool if it happened?  0 points.


The celebrity chef thing will run its course, too. Diners will grow weary of plunking down 200 bucks for a meal at a restaurant where the supposed "chef" has actually set foot in the building just once . .


I definitely see this in the works, it's just taking a little while longer to unwind itself.  Las Vegas is hurting, Dubai is hurting.  It's only a matter of time.  But, 0 points for now.


Bobby Flay will endorse Spam (it's great on the grill!). Mario Batali will hold out as long as he can, but he'll end up on a nationwide tour of shopping malls whipping up "genuine Italian recipes in 15 minutes" using Rice-a-Roni.


Well, maybe the details aren't right, but the spirit is.  So, far, Bobby Flay has endorsed a line of cookware for the Kohl's discount department store.  Mario Batali endorses GladWare .  Most telling: all these guys are represented by TSE Sports & Entertainment, putting them in the same league of promotion representation as football heroes like Joe Namath and comedians like Billy Crystal.  5 points.


Young cooks will fire their publicists, mothball the chef's table, and take their names off their restaurant's web sites . . .  Soon, America's leading chefs will not even have restaurants at all. They'll just show up randomly at various people's houses . . . and cook an unbelievable dinner for their surpised hosts


Okay, so I wasn't even remotely close on this one.  Guerilla Cuisine is still going strong, but we haven't seen any imitators crop up.  Unless, of course, I actually was right.  How would we know about it if the chefs don't have publicists and websites . . . maybe it's actually going on right in our own neighborhoods.  You just won't know about it until that knock comes at the down and in bustles a white-jacketed chef with obnoxious puffy patterned pants and a duffel bag full of battered cookware.  So, split the middle and call it 5 points, since I MIGHT have been right on here.

The tally:

Possible points: 80
Points earned: 26

Okay, so that's just a smidge under 33%.  But if it was easy telling the future we'd all be rich.

Here's to a prosperous and intriguing 2010.  I predict big things are in the works.

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